Whidbey worker shortage closes bagel business

Finding employees has not gotten any easier for small businesses.

Two and a half years into a global pandemic, finding employees has not gotten any easier for small businesses as the county’s unemployment rate continues to dip.

Whidbey Island Bagel Factory shocked customers when owner John Auburn recently decided to shutter the beloved and bustling Clinton location. He could handle supply chain delays and constant adjustments due to COVID-19, but the one thing he didn’t foresee was the lack of employees.

The South Whidbey shop had kept running with a skeleton crew of three people at times, which meant there was no one to run the grill or make sandwiches. Auburn said he would need a total of 12 people to keep the shop fully staffed and running for six days out of the week. In the past few months, he cut back hours drastically as he struggled to find dependable employees.

The shop has become something of a tourist destination over the years, with lines outside the window lasting as long as four to five hours on weekends, Auburn said. He feared putting too much stress on his remaining employees.

Since the pandemic started, he’s seen many former employees leave Whidbey Island to live with family, to go to school or simply to move to other states. He knows of at least two people who struggled to find housing on South Whidbey and as a result, got apartments in Everett and didn’t want to commute.

He is not hopeful that he’ll ever get enough employees to run the Clinton shop again. Even with pay above the minimum wage, generous tips, paid time off and some health care benefits sweetening the pot, it was not enough to entice potential workers.

The community has been devastated about the closure.

“I almost want to cry,” Auburn said. “One door opens, another door closes.”

He is, however, keeping the Clinton space to make wholesale orders. His bagels can be found at Ken’s Korner Red Apple and the Goose Community Grocer, among other select places on South Whidbey. Online orders can be placed in advance at the new Clinton ferry terminal food truck by visiting saltyseacoffee.com.

Retail operations are also still going strong at his Oak Harbor and Mount Vernon locations, where there has been no shortage of employees.

Inge Morascini, the executive director for the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants seem to be having the hardest time recruiting employees. Lack of housing is cited as the No. 1 reason that people leave their job and applicants turn down job offers.

In Coupeville, the town has had some success getting employees hired through a series of job fairs that began during the pandemic.

Lynda Eccles, the executive director for the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce, said as many as 50 people came through the last job fair, with some applicants getting hired right on the spot.

“I wish I could say it’s all solved, but it isn’t,” she said. “We are managing. There are no businesses closing. They’re just closing one or two days (a week).”

She added that the chamber is always looking for ways to support the businesses in town, including a new program that will allow Coupeville residents to get special discounts when they shop locally.

Vicki Graham, the executive director for the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard skilled chefs are difficult to find for restaurants. Whidbey SeaTac Shuttle and Island Transit have also been in desperate need of drivers, she said.

She views obtaining childcare and affordable housing as some of the largest barriers job-seekers must face now.

As of Aug. 4, Island County had 24 job postings listed on its website. WhidbeyHealth had 185 posted.

A Facebook group titled “Whidbey Island for hire/temp/full/part time” is dedicated to job postings and currently has 7,000 members.

Whidbey Island Bagel Factory has closed its Clinton location to retail operations. A bright yellow sign on the door tells the full story, right next to the hiring ad on the chalkboard. (Photo by David Welton)

Whidbey Island Bagel Factory has closed its Clinton location to retail operations. A bright yellow sign on the door tells the full story, right next to the hiring ad on the chalkboard. (Photo by David Welton)

Carol Forgas boils bagels. (Photo by David Welton)

Carol Forgas boils bagels. (Photo by David Welton)